"People don't even give it a chance -it's 'Ewww! Oooh! How can you do that stuff?'"

Photo by Candace diCarlo


Medical photographer, Biomedical Communications, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center
Length of service:
3 years
Other stuff:
She has also studied guitar construction and repairs guitars on the side.

Throughout the ages, the human body has inspired great works of art -- clothed, nude, posed, in action, and even on the operating table, one of artist Thomas Eakins' sources.

Sculptor, painter and photographer Jeanette Tasey is now following in Eakins' footsteps. The Moore College of Art graduate has managed to translate her artistic interest in the human form into a job as a medical photographer at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. When she's not engaged in the more prosaic task of photographing surgical procedures, X-rays, and Medical School staff, she works on one of her ongoing series of art photographs. Her latest series is focused on the operating room.

Tasey took some time earlier this summer to discuss her work, her art, and how the two are connected.

Q. Did your decision to become a medical photographer stem from your artistic work, or vice versa?
Definitely from the artistic work. I do a lot of figure work, figure painting, sculpture and photography, and from doing all those courses I really got in-depth as far as anatomy goes, so I took a lot of college-level courses in anatomy and physiology, which are actually medical courses for nurses and students going premed.
   So I pretty much know about anatomy and physiology, so it kind of combined itself with my figure work. [Medical photography] seemed the perfect thing to try to search out, and that's what I did. I found that Penn had an internship program in medical photography, and I applied for and got the internship, and that's how I got into doing the work.

Q. Who uses the photographs you take in your line of work?
University publications, nurses and physicians, doctors, Ph.D.s with their slide shows, any type of work they submit for journals, teaching, everything. Portrait work, PR work, everything -- we cover from one end to the other. We'll make slides and copies of X-rays as well as, sometimes, [staff] will send down photographs to have duplicated.

Q. Do you think that having an artist's approach to the subject makes you a better scientific photographer?
Oh, definitely. Especially the way things are moving now. Everything's becoming so much more artistic. In any medical journal, you don't just see a little square ad with the product in there, you see the lighting is dramatic, the colors are intense -- nothing's just plain "scientific" right now. Everything's going out in a much more artistic direction than what I've seen going through old journals and comparing them to what's happening now.

Q. Were your operating-room art photos inspired by what you're doing at work now? Is the gulf between the two all that great?
What I find I do differently than in surgical photography is, because my background is in fine art as opposed to a scientific nature, I don't see everything as straightforward, squared off and perfect. I see things as parts and pieces and forms as opposed to a big pile of guts -- sometimes, depending on how [a body part] happens to be laying there, I see things in it and I'll photograph it. A lot of the images are abstract, so I consider them to be fine art as opposed to medical photography.

Q. I understand the awe in actually seeing the functioning insides of a living, breathing person, but I'm curious as to what the beauty is in, say, a surgical suture.
I think I look at things differently than a physician would. Some of the photographs that I do when I ask to go in to the operating room would be totally useless to them. We have won awards with -- sold photographs of -- things that are very abstract, and people don't even know that they're body parts. The last show I had one of my pieces in, they thought it was glassblowing -- [the photo] looked like somebody blowing glass into a hot, burning pit.

Q. And what was it?

Q. Have any of your colleagues on the job made any comparisons between you and Thomas Eakins?
No. They could, I don't know...

Q. If it were possible, would you like to exhibit your work at Penn?
Oh, definitely, yes. Definitely.

Q. Have you spoken to any art students about pursuing a career in scientific photography as a way of broadening their perspectives and those of the people they work for?
The only people I've really talked with it about have been my professors at school who know what I do, and they have found people that have been interested in the field. Most people aren't very interested in this. The minute I mention medical photography, they go "Ewww!" That's it. They don't even give it a chance -- it's "Ewww! Oooh! How can you do that stuff?" I usually don't get a good reaction at all when I tell people what I'm doing, they just make a face. But one thing that's amazing is that the people who do make faces, when I have photographs lying around, they'll look at them.

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